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Crazy Cat Lady: I'm allergic to my own cats!

Ally Hirschlag is a producer/actor/writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY and buys way too many toys for her cats. She contributes to several publications, including Bustle, and The Nerve, and enjoys writing about all things woman. In her spar...

What to do if you discover you're allergic to your cats

Let me start off by saying that I've had asthma since I was 2 years old. I also grew up in a house with cats (and dogs), so to say it could get bad at times is an understatement. There were periods when I was using my inhaler six or seven times in a day. However, as I grew out of my teen years, my cat allergy started to get better... before it got worse again.

That sounds confusing. Let me explain. When I went to college and I wasn't living with cats 24/7, my allergy pretty much went away. Even when I went home to visit my parents (and cats), I found I wasn't reaching for my inhaler nearly as much. Naturally, I was thrilled — it seemed like I had grown out of my cat allergy once and for all. So a few years later when I decided to adopt kittens of my own, it never crossed my mind that it might come back.

Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. A few days into life with my 7-week-old tabby kittens, I found I was once again reaching for my inhaler several times a day. On top of that, I had itchy eyes and couldn't stop sneezing — symptoms I'd never really experienced before in connection with cats. So I promptly made an appointment with a recommended allergist to figure out a solution.

To make a long story short, my appointment with this allergist was not great. He ran a whole slew of tests on me, told me what I already knew (that I was allergic to cats) and put me on a more long-term asthma control medication (Advair). While none of that sounds terrible, it's what he kept insisting that put me off. He repeated over and over that I should just get rid of the "allergen" as he put it, otherwise I'd have to be on medication until said "allergen" was no longer around. I found it very difficult to make him understand that my cats are more than allergens, they're family.

What to do if you discover you're allergic to your cats

I'm sure many of you have pets about which you feel similarly. They are more than just an obstacle in the way of good health, and a doctor who doesn't see that is missing the bigger picture. I'm not saying there aren't circumstances where, unfortunately, the only solution is to find a new home for a cat, but more often than not, that is not the case. I came to this doctor to help me manage an allergy in order to keep my cats, and all he heard was, "I have pets that are causing this allergy."

Thankfully, I happened to have a friend who is an allergist and doing an immunology fellowship. She was far more empathetic. She had some wonderful tips for anyone with a mild to moderate cat allergy who wants to make living with cats work. Here are her best pointers.

Advice from Dr. Samantha Lin

  • It's important to see your doctor first — you might find you're actually more allergic to something totally unrelated to your cat!
  • Allergy tests will also tell you what part of your cat you're actually allergic to — its saliva or its hair and dander. This will help you determine what sort of meds might be best.
  • Make one room in your house an allergy-free zone (best to focus on the bedroom). Keep cats out of there at all times, and get a HEPA air purifier for it.
  • Vacuum regularly (especially the carpets), preferably with a vacuum that has a HEPA filter (Shark makes a great one).
  • Brush your cat using a specialized hair brush that reaches the lowest layer of hair (that's where the dander lives). You should do this at least once a week. You can also bath him/her once a week using a vet-approved shampoo.
  • You can take OTC medications to treat certain symptoms. Flonase or Nasacort work well on sneezing and stuffiness. Oral antihistamines like Allegra, Zyrtec and Claritin treat overarching symptoms (sneezing, itch/watery eyes, congestion), but consult a doctor before picking which one is right for you.
  • If you have asthma, you need to see your doctor to get the proper prescription. He/she will decide what sort of inhaled corticosteroid might be right for you depending on your asthma's severity.
  • Finally, if you want to try and ween yourself off allergy medication completely, you can get allergy shots. However, the caveat here is you need to take them regular for three to five years, and even then, they may not work entirely.

Some people can actually become immune to their pets through repeated exposure. While I am still muddling through my allergies at times, I'm finding I need my inhaler less than I did six months ago, and I rarely need to take antihistamines anymore.

I may never be entirely allergy-free around my cats, but for me, they are worth a little occasional discomfort. If you feel the same, find a doctor who understands your commitment to your pet, and come up with an allergy management plan that works for you. Just remember, it's totally doable, and you'll have a fluffy feline to thank you for it.

More on allergies

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The best pets for kids with allergies
How to handle pet allergies

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